Weekend Reading

Recollections of books carried back and forth on the elevated train -- in a long-term, though belated, attempt to learn something about the world.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Ahmed Ali : Twilight in Delhi

IT was the terrible summer of nineteen hundred and eleven. No one had experienced such heat for many years. Begam Jamal complained that she had never known such heat in all her life. Begam Nihal said she had never experienced such a summer ever since 1857, the year of the ‘Mutiny’. The temperature rose higher and higher until it reached one hundred and fifteen in the shade. From seven in the morning the loo began to moan, blowing drearily through the hopeless streets. The leaves of the henna tree became sered and wan, and the branches of the date palm became coated with sand. The dust blew through the unending noon; and men went out with their heads well-covered and protected. The pigeons flew for a while and opened their beaks for heat. The crows cawed and the kites cried and their voices sounded so dull.
The sky lost its colour and became dirty and bronzed. The loo did not stop even at night. The stars flickered in the sky behind the covering layer of dust. The sand rained down all night, came between the teeth, covered the beds, and sleep did not come near parched humanity.
Tempers rose and from all around came the loud voices of women quarrelling, husbands beating their wives, màthers their children, and there seemed no rest for man.

The above text starts off Chapter 1 of Part II - but a similar refrain introduces almost every chapter.

It's hot.

It's dusty.

Folks are miserable

The entire novel is a dirge -- for its main character, the patriarch of an aristocratic Arab family in Delhi - as well as for the good-old-days of the Muslim community in Delhi, the capital city of the Mughal Empire.

As we learn towards the end, the family was booted out of Delhi when the British recaptured it at the end of the 1857 uprising, and all Muslims were exiled for five years, while their cash and movable property was looted.

But they weren't killed - their mosques weren't destroyed -- and they retained title to their property, whose rents allowed the patriarch to pursue his hobbies and maintian a large extended family, paying for all the weddings, dowries, health care, alms, etc.

But not enough to afford to maintain a high-class courtesan - so he bought into a small business and worked there every day so he could afford to spend his nights with her.

It doesn't sound like a bad life - but still he was quite bitter about those damned ferengi (the Arab word of disparagement that referred to Europeans and specifically the British - with connotations similar to the greedy little aliens of that name on Star Trek)

Did the Mughals treat the citizens of Delhi any better when they had invaded it 200 years earlier ? Did the Arabs/Afghans treat the Hindus of that area any better during their invasions? Did the Pakistanis treat people of Eastern Pakistan any better during the insurrection that resulted in the creation of Bangladesh ? And most ironically -- would any of these conquered peoples have written a novel in the language of the conqueror to prick his conscience ? ("Twilight in Delhi" was originally written in English, and taken to England for publication)

Probably only other Muslims would sympathize with his plight. Because all his family really lost was some its self-respect, some of its honor -- that most prized possession of men in a community of warriors - or prison inmates. And Islam is a warrior religion.

As with "The Cairo Trilogy", which was written 16 years later, the story follows the decline of a fictional patriarch within a non-fictional political setting - in this case, it's the Delhi Coronation of 1911 and the subsequent war years. And the primary engine of his decline is age. Everyone eventually gets old and decrepit, whether they are princes or paupers, Muslims or not. That's what makes the novel as a whole ring true -- even if it's a universal, familiar story whose ending is never in doubt.

To alleviate the relentless march towards death, we're also given plenty of detailed local color -- descriptions of weddings, funerals, and a colorful cast of exotic characters - fakirs and such - that inhabit the Muslim quarter of an Indian city.

But there's practically zero drama of personal development and character. Everything is as superficial and shallow as in the "Arabian Nights" where love is always love-at-first-sight.

The only exception is the patriarch's next-to-youngest son who regrets his neglect of the young wife whom he had been crazy about marrying, before even speaking with her.

There's no other indication that anyone is trying to change themselves or improve their community. All such thoughts begin and end with the daily prayers. It's "all in His hands".

Is it possible to have a novel where's there's no possibility - and subsequent controversy - for change ?

This is more like a long, sad poem or ghazal.